Dean's voice snapped Castiel out of his sleep instantly, before he even completely registered that he'd lost consciousness in the first place.
While it was practically pitch dark at this point, his eyes adjusted quickly. His gaze fixated on Dean, sprawled on his back on the floor and surrounded by—well, at first all Castiel could perceive was their wings, black and torn, illuminated by red, glowing eyes, which was a trait nearly all of the monsters in Purgatory seemed to hold in common.
He felt Jimmy Novak's weak heart pounding in his chest as he scrambled to his feet, his blade in hand like it was second nature. (And wasn't it? The figurative calluses on his hands had never left, not even after months in an institution.)
One of the monster's heads snapped toward him, and he didn't need to rely on the sight of fangs contorting its face (as if they were too big for its mouth) to realize what it was.
“Yeah, the extra fugly version,” Dean coughed up from the floor.
Castiel seriously questioned Dean's insistence on provoking the group when there was five of them compared to their two, but there wasn't time to comment on it.
“Funny you would say that,” one of them hissed. Its voice was distorted as it talked around the fangs, inhuman in a way that made Castiel's skin crawl. “Seeing how you could have been here with us, Dean.”
Castiel stiffened in place. What did that mean? Was it a reference to all the times Dean had cheated death? Castiel hadn't expected them to talk, let alone to recognize them—or Dean, at least. On the other hand, he was surprised that it hadn't happened sooner. He and Dean weren't exactly unknowns when it came to the world of monsters. In fact, what they were mainly known for was killing the things, but...
Until now, the beasts that had come after them had only seemed to target them because they passed through their territory, and none of them had expressed an emotion besides an overwhelming hunger, a need to kill. These, on the other hand, were sentient and had obviously tracked them specifically.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dean said from his position on the floor, making an effort to sound threatening even though one of the vampires had its clawed hand pressed down on his chest to hold him in place. Castiel was almost certain he heard a knowing lilt in Dean's tone, though. Even if Dean was playing dumb, he clearly knew who these vampires were—or had an idea, at the least.
Another one of the vampires crouched down toward Dean, and Castiel felt his muscles tense, ready to jump into action the moment they tried to hurt him. He eyed the creature's smooth, ash-colored skin, its tattered wings, its clawed feet. What better home for a vampire than a place where they could feed on the blood of others for all of eternity? That giant pool of blood behind them had to be a special treat for these things.
He also noticed how it was eyeing Dean's neck. Turning him would likely be impossible in this realm, but it wasn't a theory Castiel wished to test.
“I can't believe you wouldn't remember the vampire that turned you. In fact, I'm kind of hurt,” it spat, a black tongue sliding out to lightly touch at its fangs.
Dean stared up at the creature, and suddenly his eyes were shining with equal amounts fear and anger. “You've got to be fucking kidding me.”
Castiel could barely believed what he'd heard. Dean, turned into a vampire? The creature wasn't bluffing, which meant it was true, and yet it was news to Castiel. How could he have not known this before now? Sam and Dean should have called him in such a situation, which meant it had likely happened when he'd been making a conscious effort to distance himself from the two; when he'd been paying Crowley more visits than them, when looking the Winchesters in the face had made him feel weary.
The vampire's laughter forced Castiel out of his thoughts, the deep tone seeming to vibrate through to his core. While he would have been able to turn these things to dust with a mere touch back on Earth, here it was a game of trial and error. But he was prepared to react and find out for himself at a moment's notice.
“Since when have you known vampires to be the joking type?” the vampire asked, sneering down at Dean. Drool dripped from its fangs onto Dean's face, and Castiel flinched in unison with him.
“Far as I can tell,” Dean responded, and Castiel admired the way he was able to recover so quickly, “you guys should be thanking me. There's no sun in Purgatory.”
“Oh, we can thank you,” one of the other vampires cut in, shifting its wings as it moved closer. Castiel almost mirrored the movement, but one of them had its red eyes fixed on him like a hawk. If he made a move, it would have to be faster than what they could keep up with, but vampires were known for their reflexes. They had wings to match him now, but surely they would be nothing compared to his.
“How the hell did you change back, huh? How'd you undo it?” the vampire demanded.
Had they tracked them here to find out that and that alone? Castiel realized that if Dean had only prayed, he could have healed him, but he'd obviously found some other way.
Dean grinned up at the grotesque face hanging over him. “There's a cure. You need the blood of the vamp that turned you,” he said, at which point his gaze slid over to the one who had owned up to that honor earlier, “and more importantly, you need to have not had a drop of blood. Something you greedy mooks wouldn't have been able to pull off.”
The vampire that was posed over Dean took offense to that—it lifted up its leg, which rippled with lean muscle beyond any human structure, and then, without warning, slammed its clawed foot into Dean's stomach.
Dean's scream echoed through Castiel's head, and all of his protective instincts kicked into gear.
“Enough,” he said, voice booming in the enclosed space. He moved away from the wall and threw his arm out. Power coursed through the limb and memories flooded back through him with a startling clarity, just like the day when he'd left Emmanuel behind. How many times had he protected Dean in this way? How many more times would he?
The vampire went crashing into the opposite wall with enough force to rain dust down on their heads. All four of the others turned toward him then, but he didn't view it as a threat. Their attention had moved from Dean, and that's what mattered.
“We're not here to listen to your taunts,” Castiel hissed, ignoring the fact that he and Dean were the ones who had been ambushed. A good soldier knew how to take control of a situation, even at a disadvantage, and it seemed that old habits were hard to shake.
Now that he was fighting for Dean's safety, he felt stronger, his mind sharper. He'd wondered before what made him “Cas,” and he got the feeling this was it. The thought bolstered him. “I want to know one thing, and one thing only.”
“And what's that, angel?” One of the vampires crossed its arms over its chest, and the mannerism was so human that for a moment Castiel thought he could sense phantom remnants of the monster's soul, hints of the person it had been before it had taken its first taste of human blood.
He shoved it away. There was no time for sympathy now.
Castiel forced himself to keep his gaze off of Dean. He was desperate to know how badly he'd been injured, but that would have to wait until they were out of danger. “We don't plan to remain here with you abominations. During the eclipse, a link between Purgatory and Earth is formed. When does that happen?”
The one he had punished chuckled in response as it tried to pull itself to its feet. “You're gonna try to get the door open? What, you didn't have enough fun with that the first time?”
“Yeah,” another, quiet until now, suddenly spoke up. “We heard what you got up to. Taking after daddy, are we?”
At that jab, he and Dean reacted instantly. For both of them, that had crossed a line. As Castiel rushed toward the one that had spoken, filled with hope that he could somehow kill something that was already dead, Dean finally regained hold of his stake and jumped to his feet to stab out blindly with it. From the sounds of it, his stake had stabbed into something, because Castiel heard a piercing shriek somewhere over his left shoulder.
He didn't concern himself with that. Castiel's hand slammed into the vampire's forehead, and he let out a burst of divine power. Light flooded the room and burned out the eyes of the one he was targeting. A thrill rushed through Castiel then, and the part of him that had tried to renounce violence was crushed under the instincts of a born soldier.
When the light faded away and Castiel's vision cleared, the sight of all five of the vampires writhing on the ground greeted him. Dean had also been blinded, but even if he was off-balance, he was standing.
“Cas!” he called out, and as Castiel moved toward him, Dean grabbed for the crook of his elbow. “Get us the hell out of here!”
Castiel didn't have to be told twice; he spread his wings.
They landed in a forest. While Castiel didn't feel very steady flying here, like a bird caught in a storm, he'd made sure to aim ahead of them, closer to the mountain. They hadn't gone backward and they'd escaped the vampires, which was what truly mattered.
With Dean wounded, Castiel had to offer him support as they stumbled through the forest, but after some careful searching they found shelter in the hollow of an enormous tree. Much like everything else here, Castiel could tell that the tree was completely dead, but despite that it still stood, almost proudly. It was old—impossibly so—to the point that he suspected that perhaps it had been here since this realm had come into existence.
Purgatory was supposedly older than even him. Older than God? It seemed inconceivable, but maybe that was a singular way of looking at the world. It was hard to shake off all of the ingrained beliefs he'd held on to when he'd still been a proper angel.
Castiel realized that his mind was running away with itself again, and tried once more to focus. As Dean moved away from him and eased himself down, Castiel dragged his hands through his hair in a futile attempt to dislodge the dust from the tunnels.
Holing up in a hollow meant they were cramped, but they both still had enough space to stretch out. Before long, Dean set about taking stock of his wound.
Castiel watched, face knit with concern, as Dean pulled up his shirt and revealed a bloody mess of jagged gashes where the vampire's claws had dug in. Dean's skin had been shredded to ribbons from the deep lacerations that ran up his abdomen in parallel lines.
When Dean caught him looking, his mouth quirked up. “It's not as bad as it looks,” he said stubbornly, but the weakness in his voice told a different story.
“Dean, if we don't tend to your wounds properly we're going to reach a point where you won't be able to move on,” Castiel said firmly. While his weakened state meant that Castiel had earned a bruise on his side and some scratches on his face and neck, none of it compared to Dean's injuries. In fact, Dean's wound only seemed to bleed more the longer they left it alone. While Castiel wasn't educated in human biology, he'd watched enough mortals torn apart and bleeding to recognize a bad wound when he saw one.
“Yeah?” Dean said, huffing out as he tried to manage the pain. An image of him suspended in Hell, screaming in agony, rushed through Castiel's mind without permission. He dug his nails into the palm of his hand and tried to burn out all of those stray thoughts.
No longer willing to tolerate Dean's flippant attitude about his physical state, Castiel pushed up onto his knees and then inched toward Dean so that he could get a closer look at the wound. “We need to bind it somehow.”
“Please, Cas, tell me where you plan to find a friggin' first aid kit,” Dean forced out as he winced his eyes closed.
Without warning, Castiel grabbed at the bottom of his shirt and ripped until a decently sized strip came free. It meant the bottom portion of his torso might be left exposed, but that didn't bother him. Before Dean could respond to what he'd done, Castiel leaned over him and tried to work his hands under his back so that he could pull the cloth tight around the wounded area.
It wasn't like the hospital uniform belonged to him in the first place. He understood that the trenchcoat was off-limits—Dean had made that clear enough—but the rest of his clothing didn't have any value to it as far as he was concerned. He'd tear off pieces of his shirt until none of it was left, if need be.
“Cas, what—are you serious?”
“Dean,” he said, speaking clearly, “do you want to end up trapped here? Or do you want to make it out and see Sam?”
Dean stared up at him with slightly clouded eyes. He didn't seem to have a good response to that.
Since that was as close as Castiel was ever going to get to Dean outwardly accepting his help, he continued working. He kept his ears trained on any outward noises that could indicate they'd been followed, but they were in the clear so far.
He watched his hands spread the cloth of his shirt until it covered most of the wound and then let out a sigh. Dean had fallen silent for too long, and he needed to keep him aware until this was done. “That was impulsive of me,” he said.
“Flying us out of there.”
“Cas, I'm the one who told you to get us out. I think getting curb-stomped by a vampire once is enough for a whole lifetime.” Dean shifted under his hands, trying to make it easier for him to work the cloth around. The white fabric slowly spread with red.
“We could have questioned them further,” Castiel pointed out as he twisted slightly to grab the other end of the bandage and pull it around. “It's possible one of them would have given us the information we need.”
Dean laughed humorlessly and shook his head. Castiel noticed Dean's forehead, shining with sweat, and lifted his hand up from the wound to wipe it away. He felt the moisture, the worrying heat there, and wished that there was more that he could do.
Then he saw how Dean closed his eyes to the touch, and realized he might have breached the personal space Dean so strongly valued. But if Dean's eyes were closed, was that truly a bad sign? Did he feel content and safe in this moment, or was it just a means of escape? Dean had worked himself into a very dangerous position, and with a celestial being he could hardly trust. Who would want to face that reality?
Before, Castiel had touched Dean's forehead to help him, to send him away from danger. But much time had passed since then.
“Dude,” Dean mumbled as his eyes opened and he smacked Castiel's hand away. “I'm not some sick kid.”
“My apologies,” was all Castiel could say. He remembered when Daphne had fallen sick at one point, confined to their bed. He'd taken her soup and rubbed her back until the nausea went away.
But no, that had been a ghost. A figment.
Dean drew the back of his hand across his forehead. “Anyway,” he said, doing a rather spectacular job of changing the subject, “I chopped the heads off of every last one of those freaks while I was also vamped up and way less used to it than the rest of 'em. They weren't exactly my buddies, all right?”
Castiel tried to focus on the real topic at hand. Of all the vampires to run into, the one that he himself had slain would have been ideal. She had begged for death, and he had a feeling that she would have been willing to help them.
It still hadn't sunk in completely that Dean had briefly been a vampire. “If you'd ingested even one drop of blood, you would have been one of them,” Castiel said quietly, not even fully aware that he'd paused in the bandaging. What if Dean hadn't been curable? Crowley likely would have come to Castiel and told him that now Dean was a commodity, a way to Purgatory. Easy access to the world of monsters. Anger and guilt ran through Castiel like a strike of lightning, and he realized that his hands had started to shake.
Luckily, Dean didn't notice, as he'd turned his face away, and Castiel watched as his jaw tightened under his skin. “I wouldn't have slipped,” he said.
Dean was lying. It was clear in the way that he wouldn't make eye contact, how he unknowingly ran his tongue over his gums, where the fangs must have once been. He could almost see Dean's self-loathing swirling under his flesh, like a concentration of red, pulsing pain. It was more obvious than the blood staining the bandage.
Dean didn't completely trust himself, and that was something Castiel could relate to.
“What I want to know,” Dean said, quickly changing the subject, “is how they snuck up on us. I mean, you should have felt them coming from a mile away, right?”
With the bandage wrapped tightly around Dean now, Castiel finally removed his hands from the wounded flesh and leaned back, settling down on his feet, which had been folded under him. The distance between them was still close, but they didn't have much space to work with and he wanted to keep a closer eye on Dean.
Answering the question would wound his pride, and so he let the silence stretch out for longer than he should have, to the point that Dean finally raised an eyebrow.
“I... believe I fell asleep,” Castiel said at length, his voice only a hush.
That caused Dean to push himself up slightly, which Castiel wished he could stop. His hands twitched forward briefly, wanting to ease Dean back down like a wounded animal, but he held back.
“You fell asleep?” Dean forced out, sounding legitimately baffled. “Dude, the only time I've ever seen you sleep, you were in the back of my car and that was because you'd done that suicidal banishing thing.”
Castiel remembered it well, and his hand touched his chest where he'd carved the sigil. It had been a reckless, desperate move, but it had gotten the job done at the time. He remembered how in the institute he'd taken out the finger paint, had drawn those symbols in red over and over on pieces of paper. The doctors had stared at them with deep frowns etched into their faces.
“Another aspect of Purgatory, it seems,” he replied after a pause. “While neither of us seems to require food, rest is another story.”
“But you were up for a while before that, weren't you?” Dean countered. Castiel watched as Dean's face scrunched—he was likely trying to work out just how much time had passed since they'd arrived here, but that was impossible. Castiel had already tried.
“I fought off the fatigue for as long as I could.” He'd been feeling it since they'd left the cave that they'd first taken shelter in, like the sandman of myth had been stalking him, but had chosen to ignore it. There hadn't seemed to be any other choice, not when Dean himself needed to rest so frequently.
“God, you're still an idiot,” Dean grumbled, rolling his eyes. “If you need to sleep, you need to sleep. No being the martyr. We'll do it in shifts.”
Castiel nodded, even though he wanted to protest that he was an angel, that angels shouldn't need rest. He was so far from Heaven now that it hardly seemed to matter. “In that case, it's your turn.”
“Bullshit.” Dean replied so immediately that it felt like a smack to the face.
This, however, wasn't something that Castiel could simply let slide. “You've been injured.”
“A vampire stepped on me. Big deal.” Dean crossed his arms, but despite his efforts to brush it off, he'd lost more blood than most humans could handle, and without a way to heal him, all they could do was rest.
Castiel didn't know how safe they were here, but it had to be an improvement on the tunnels. He could hear distant sounds, but this was a more unorthodox hiding spot; hopefully that would work in their favor. “This isn't up for discussion.”
“You sound like a friggin' teacher,” Dean grumbled. “No more telling me what to do, all right? I've been hurt a lot worse than this, so just... sleep.”
Dean had a point, of course. Castiel was hardly an authority figure anymore. When they'd first met, he'd ordered Dean around without hesitation, as he'd been acting on orders from Heaven and he hadn't had any reason to doubt them. But when he'd turned his back on Heaven to fight on the side of “free will,” orders hadn't been necessary, from his side or Dean's. They'd been comrades, ready to put their lives in each other's hands, yet somewhere down the line that had fallen apart as well. It was easy to blame it all on Crowley, but Castiel knew that for the most part, he'd hardened up around Dean for his own reasons.
And because of that, they were here. Near powerless, captured in Purgatory, surrounded by creatures that he'd once tried to hold within him, because he'd been greedy and prideful. It was true he'd spat them back out, but he must have lost some part of him as well, that day. Or maybe those souls had left a taint that he couldn't simply cut out.
Now here he was, weak not only from injuries, but because he was tired in a way that went deeper than Jimmy Novak's flesh and bone. There was some part of him that longed for that hospital bed, where he'd been able to sleep all day and avoid the world if he'd wanted.
That longing scared him.
For a moment, he thought about telling this to Dean, but he realized it would come out of nowhere. After all, Dean wasn't privy to the broken mind that laid behind the borrowed face of his once close friend.
More than anything, what Dean wanted from him right now was trust, and Castiel realized that he owed him that much, and so much more.
“Fine,” he said finally. Dean visibly relaxed and that somehow made the agreement worth it on its own. “But if you find yourself losing consciousness, or you hear something approaching, don't hesitate to wake me.”
“What do I look like, an idiot? I'm a hunter, Cas. I know how this works.” Dean waved him off, and while the action was weak, it was also insistent.
Castiel finally pulled back and settled against the old wood. For a moment, he felt a sense of camaraderie with it. It was just as old as he was, if not more so, and yet here it was, standing tall despite the fact that it was surrounded by an eternal battleground, populated by lost souls and steeped in blood. It had probably been covered in it—perhaps that was even what it needed to grow. Blood instead of water.
Yes, Castiel thought as his mind sunk into the depths of sleep, he could relate to that.
When Castiel woke to Dean still feeling weak and not being able to move much without hurting himself, he knew that they had no choice but to stay in this hiding spot until Dean could heal. It wasn't an easy decision considering they were on an unknown time limit, but that changed when, while Dean took his shift sleeping, letters started drawing themselves out into the inner bark of the tree.
Sam was speaking to them.
Castiel knew better than to let Dean sleep through it and woke him. “Dean, it's Sam.”
Dean shot up and then immediately regretted it. Even as he hissed in pain, he eyed the area groggily. “What? Where?”
Castiel pointed to the bright wording, which had almost finished spelling itself out, and they sat in respectful silence as the message finished. It was simple and to the point: “TWO WEEKS.”
“Thanks, Sammy,” Dean said with a nod to the words. “At least he didn't use too much blood doing that.”
Dean was the one trying to heal from a severe abdominal wound and while he ran the risk of never leaving this nightmare land, but his first concern was still Sam.
“Two weeks isn't much time,” Castiel said after a pause.
“Yeah, which is why we can't waste any more of it.” Dean tried to stand, but he barely stayed on his feet for a few seconds before he slid back down to the ground.
“Dean, don't,” Castiel said with a shake of his head. “I know you're used to pushing through things, but it can't work that way this time. We know how much time we have now, so we'll adjust appropriately.”
They needed a few more days here, at least, and so they continued to alternate shifts, though Castiel found that sleep disoriented him. When he was drifting in and out of consciousness, he felt less like himself.
To try and keep his head on straight, he sometimes ventured out from the tree's hollow while Dean slept (he never strayed far enough that he couldn't sense Dean's soul as it rested) to search for anything that might make them more comfortable. Unfortunately, with not even the barest plants to pick or harvest, there wasn't much that he could do, and Dean protested the idea of him ripping up more of his shirt to change his bandage.
Instead of getting better, Dean only seemed to be more bothered by his wounds, and he was never capable of sleeping for more than a few hours at a time. More than that, he refused to let Castiel look at the cuts to judge whether it was healing, as they had no other bandages to rewrap them.
Castiel tried not to sleep much himself, but after one instance in which he'd managed it for more than just a few hours, a moan of pain woke him. He opened his eyes and saw Dean's face covered with sweat as he grimaced in pain.
Castiel shifted up until he was sitting and then moved over until he was at Dean's side. “Enough. Let me see it.”
The pain must have been bad, because Dean agreed to let Castiel unwrap the bandage, which he did as gingerly as possible. The gashes had closed up for the most part and the blood had dried and caked, no longer fresh and gushing out, but all of the skin around the cuts was inflamed, an angry red.
“It's infected,” Dean said with a sharp stare downward. “Friggin' vampires.”
Castiel didn't know how to heal a human wound the natural way, so he placed his hand on Dean's side and forced all of his energy into repairing him.
“Uh.” Dean raised a brow.
Castiel pulled his hand away and swallowed. “What do you suggest we do?” he asked.
Dean had to know. This wasn't the first time he'd been hurt like this, though it was the first time he'd been so limited in resources.
“Well, living like tree huggers isn't doing us any favors.” Dean pulled his shirt back down and closed his eyes as he regulated his breathing.
An infection. Castiel knew it wasn't good, but what did it mean for Dean? Was it a death sentence? Had he failed in the one task he had left to him?
Castiel didn't like the idea of traveling any long distances while Dean was in such a state. He could try to fly, grab Dean and aim straight for that mountain peak and hope for the best, but he realized it was impulsive. They could end up anywhere from a monster's den to that pool of blood if he missed the mark, and with the imprecise way he had to fly here, that was far too likely. If he made one wrong move, it might tip the situation from bad to unsalvageable.
Castiel took a few quiet breaths and forced himself to stay calm. He had to, for Dean.
“You must be tired,” he said. “Sleep. Try to regain some strength, and then we'll make a decision on how to proceed.” He yanked the bandage away and allowed the wound to breathe now that adding pressure to it wasn't a concern. It needed to be sutured—that much he could tell—but they just didn't have the supplies.
For once, Dean didn't argue, but turned over and tried to make himself comfortable. He tossed and turned for a while and muttered a few words about how his eyes hurt, but eventually fell asleep.
As Dean slept, Castiel wondered again where they could find some clean water. They could purify the wound with it and hopefully chase the infection out that way. In theory, a forest would eventually lead to a river of some sort, but he couldn't expect Purgatory to follow Earth's rules.
Time passed (and Castiel was still trying to keep track, two weeks running through his mind like a song played on repeat), but he spent most of it watching Dean. He could get lost in watching him breathe in and out—he labeled each cycle of it as a measure of time, and counted them, or made a mark with his nail on the ground for every bead of sweat that rolled down Dean's face.
But then Dean started pitching around and groaning, sometimes coming dangerously close to rolling onto his stomach. Castiel moved forward to wake him; he grabbed for his shoulder and shook.
At first Dean protested by shifting away, but Castiel pulled him onto his back.
Dean tucked his chin toward his chest and winced his eyes closed. “Get... away...”
“Dean, it's me,” Castiel insisted. “Wake up. We need to—”
One of Dean's eyes opened, but only a sliver, and only for a split second. But that was long enough for Castiel to see a flash of red that made his heart stop.
No, he must have been seeing things. His mind liked doing that now, playing tricks on him, and while everything from when they'd arrived in Purgatory onward had felt hauntingly real, this he couldn't accept.
“Dean, please,” he said again, and his voice hitched unexpectedly.
That caused Dean to wake up completely. He shifted up onto his elbows and Castiel forced himself to watch as his eyes opened.
The eyes that he'd stared into so many times were now red and slitted.
Castiel jerked back, which unsettled Dean in turn.
“What?” Dean asked as he tried to push himself up, wincing all the while. His eyes darted around and it was so surreal, so fundamentally wrong, that Castiel could only stare for a few moments. “Cas, what is it?”
At least Dean was still himself, his actions and words no different from before he'd slept. Castiel just didn't know how long that would last.
They hadn't exactly been fastidious when it came to sanitation, but Castiel hadn't been prepared for this. He'd seen that shade of red of before—in the eyes of the harpies and vampires, in the blood of the lake. A failure to keep Dean safe had warped into a failure to keep him sane, and Castiel felt a choking dread in his chest.
It was fear. It was an emotion he hadn't learned to recognize until recently. As a soldier of God, there had never been a reason to feel scared. He had followed his orders and that was all that had ever been expected of him. He hadn't been attached to anything beyond the mission. Sometimes he wished for that simplicity, even though he knew that there was no way to return to it.
Besides, that was what a coward would do, and Dean had been trying this whole time to teach him how to not be one.
He swallowed the fear down for that reason. “This isn't a normal infection. You're... changing.”
“Changing?” Dean's tone took on an urgent edge that Castiel didn't like. “What do you mean, changing?”
“I would show you if I could, but suffice to say your eyes are no longer yours.” They hadn't yet come across anything with a reflective surface in this place, and Castiel had a feeling that was for the best.
Dean reached up to press his fingers into his cheek right under the eye socket, teeth grit. “Then—then we need to reverse it, Cas.”
Castiel hesitated. Dean always made things sound so simple, perhaps because that made them easier to face, but there was absolutely nothing about their current situation that could classify as easy. “I would need to examine your soul more closely to determine if a cure is possible,” he said after a pause.
Dean scrabbled up into a sitting position, and Castiel watched with concern as the muscles in his abdomen contracted. If Dean opened up his wound again...
“If one is possible?” Dean snarled, throwing one hand out in protest. “Cas, this ain't a question of maybe! There has to be a way!”
There Dean went again, making those impossible demands. Why did he keep asking him for things when Castiel had proved time and time again that he couldn't deliver? He felt the energy drain out of him when it sunk in that he might end up failing Dean once again, and this time with results he could never hope to repair.
“You can't always expect me to have the answers,” Castiel shot back, but instead of holding Dean's gaze he stared down at his hands, clenched tight over his thighs.
“Yeah, well, right now you do have to have them. You're the reason—”
Dean cut off suddenly, and Castiel felt his stomach jump instead of his heart this time. “What, Dean?”
“Forget it.” Dean brushed it off. “Look, if you need to examine my soul or whatever...”
They both had to be recalling the same instance, when Castiel had searched Sam for a soul. On top of Sam ending up soulless because of his miscalculation, Castiel had hid that fact from both Sam and Dean until the last possible moment. He didn't like being reminded of it, but he couldn't fight back against it either.
The best intentions led down the darkest roads, and this time the destination had been Purgatory. Dean had been brought along for the ride despite being the last person to deserve such a fate, and Castiel didn't know if that was something he could ever make up for.
And now Dean was turning into a monster, and Castiel didn't know if he could stop that either.
“I do,” Castiel said uncertainly, “and it will require you to hold still.” He had no idea if he could even access Dean's soul here in Purgatory, but he had to try. He had gained some practice with the process by now, seeing how he'd been handling more souls than he'd known what to do with for a time. But doing so with Dean was different, and he didn't feel comfortable with it.
Neither did Dean, apparently, if the way he closed his eyes (which was a relief for Castiel, at least, when they were that piercing red) and pressed his lips together was any indication.
After rolling up his sleeves, Castiel clamped one hand on Dean's shoulder to keep him in place while he moved the other toward Dean's middle, slightly above his wound. Dean shuddered slightly under his grip as his breathing escalated, but Castiel couldn't focus on that now. He forced himself to clear his mind of Purgatory and the leviathans and his own mental damage and Heaven and everything but the task before him.
He pressed his hand forward, and it pushed past flesh and tendons and muscle into something that went so much deeper than the physical. Dean screamed in strangled pain, but Castiel had to ignore it. It felt like an impossible task, but he pushed further in and watched Dean's skin light up. And then, finally, he reached it.
It was almost exactly as he remembered—he was still struck by how bright it was despite the sheer amount it had been through. He felt the scars where it had been torn apart in Hell, jagged and impossible to heal. And while it was still as warm and powerful as it had always been, it had dark patches on it now. The infection was worming its way in and adding a slow taint.
Part of Castiel wanted to stay here for longer, nestled up against Dean's soul, where words and expressions and betrayal didn't exist, where his Grace could resonate with Dean in an uncomplicated way, but he realized that it would be dangerous to remain any longer than was necessary.
He pulled back, felt the world crash back down on him. Purgatory came back into focus with painful clarity—a land saturated with blood, overcrowded with souls that had killed and been killed so many times it was impossible to fathom. Castiel sucked in the old, oaky smell of the tree they were hidden in and placed his hands on the hard ground.
Dean sat hunched before him, chest heaving from the pain, unnatural eyes tinged with hurt.
“Holy shit,” he gasped.
“My apologies.” Castiel bowed his head. “I should have been more careful.”
Dean caught his breath. “It's fine. Can you fix it?”
Dean looked so desperate, like he was hoping that the angel he knew, the one who he'd stopped the Apocalypse with, was hidden somewhere under the blood-soaked hospital scrubs and the worn-down expression.
“I think so,” he said, though the momentary look of relief on Dean's face only hurt Castiel more, “but it would be very dangerous. For both of us.”
“Define dangerous,” Dean demanded.
Castiel sighed. At least he was used to trying to explain what he could do as an angel in human terms. “It's more likely I would be able to heal spiritual wounds rather than physical ones here, but the amount of energy it requires could be... implosive.” He flexed his wrist, trying to judge the power stored within one hand.
“Okay, so you'll end up splattered. How about me?”
Castiel looked into those awful red eyes, because he needed to make this perfectly clear. “I would literally be burning the infection off of your soul, much like cauterizing a wound in human terms, and if I don't perform it just right it could kill you.”
Dean gnawed at his bottom lip as he thought that over.
“So what do we do?” he asked at length. “I mean, we could wait it out. I don't think turning works the same way here. Maybe it'll pass.” He shrugged and then rubbed at the side of his neck.
Castiel didn't know how much longer he could handle looking at a monster's eyes on his friend's face. If circumstances were different, he'd gladly die to cure Dean, but he knew that Dean wouldn't be able to escape this place without him. They both had to make it to the peak of that mountain. Once Castiel pushed Dean to the other side, he could stop worrying about his own survival.
“We can wait for a little bit longer,” Castiel replied after a pause, “if only to see how the sickness progresses. But it's vital we don't leave it for too long.”
“Okay, so we give it another few hours, and then you do your soul-cleaning trick,” Dean said with a firm nod.
Castiel wasn't so sure. He shifted in place. “A few hours?”
“Cas, maybe I can't see my own eyes, but just knowing is making my skin crawl. You either fix me or I turn into something, and I'm not gonna turn into something.” Dean shook his head fervently.
“Or I try to fix you, and end up killing you in the process.” He jabbed a finger in Dean's direction. Castiel couldn't even imagine what he'd do in that case. If he wasn't already broken, that would surely finish the job.
“If I turn into something, then I'm gonna end up dead anyway,” Dean shot back.
Castiel didn't have a rebuttal.
“Either way, I don't think sticking around here is going to do us much good,” Dean said as he tilted his head up to take in the open space of the tree above them.
That Castiel agreed with. He already knew that an easy solution was wishful thinking, but the Winchesters had taught him how to believe in the impossible even with the odds stacked so harshly against them.
Castiel crossed his arms stubbornly. “We can move on, but only if you can stand.”
Dean blinked up at him, which caused a shiver to race down Castiel's spine without his permission. Those eyes shouldn't be doing normal, human things. He had to return Dean to the way he was meant to be, no matter what the cost.
“Maybe.” Dean braced his hand against the bark. “Only one way to find out.”
It took some trial and error (which mainly involved Dean collapsing against Castiel a few times) before Dean admitted that there was no chance he could walk on his own. They maneuvered themselves into a position where Dean could wrap an arm around Castiel's shoulder and lean against his side, and that allowed them to walk effectively.
They staggered through the woods, Dean fighting to keep his balance and Castiel doing what he could to decrease the amount of noise they made. There were too many spaces in the trees where something could be hiding, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Castiel kept looking over his shoulder, as if he could swear that there was some beast breathing down his shirt collar, and pinpricks of red in the distance caused him to jerk Dean behind the cover of a tree a few times.
Instead of the normal sounds of a forest—owls hooting, the rustling of branches—he heard only heavy panting, the thunder of oversized paws, and the screeching and gurgling of something far past human.
They made it about half a mile—which took much longer than it should have—when Dean suddenly slammed his hand into Castiel's chest and pushed him away. Castiel actually stumbled back, but Dean's strength shouldn't have even caused him to teeter. No, this was the kind of power he'd expect from a creature.
Dean fell against a tree, one hand pressed tight against his mouth, and for a moment Castiel could only watch, overcome by helplessness. He wished he could do something, anything, and yet he was frozen in place.
“What is it?” he finally asked, voice caught in his throat.
“Shit,” Dean forced out in a pained rasp, muffled behind his hand. He twisted his body around so his back pressed against the tree, his reddened eyes wide and feral.
When he gasped for breath, Castiel saw two elongated fangs where Dean's canines should have been.
He fought not to step away. He'd dealt with plenty of fanged things since he'd started working with the Winchesters, but this was Dean. He knew how to kill a monster, not how to save it.
This was all going too fast, and it had been wrong for them to wait at all. Castiel panicked as he imagined what might change next. Maybe the infection would target Dean's skeletal system, or maybe he'd lose his limbs entirely and become more serpentine, or grow fur and eventually start running around on all fours. The images jumped into Castiel's head unbidden and he clenched his fists tight at his sides, as if that would stop them.
Worse than any physical change, though, was the possible degradation of Dean's mind, how he might lose any sense of self and become just as ravenous as the things he hunted.
“We can't wait any longer,” Castiel said as he neared Dean, who made an effort to push him away, but was braced for it this time and caught his wrist.
Castiel stared into Dean's morphed eyes. “We'll find somewhere more protected than here, and then... I'll do what has to be done.” He still didn't know if he had the strength to fix this, but he couldn't doubt himself anymore.
“You might die,” Dean protested, his words slurred as he tried not to pierce his own lip open with his fangs.
“If I don't try, you might kill me yourself.”
Dean startled at that. Then his body sank. “...Fine. Okay. And Cas, if I do die?”
No. There was no room for doubt. If Dean couldn't believe it, then Castiel would have to. “You won't. I won't let you.”
Dean had taught him how to lie like this, and he'd reached a point where he could even believe his own deceit.
Dean almost smiled, but the curve of his lips was contorted by the fangs. “Since when are you the optimistic one?”
“I'm not optimistic, just persistent. Now let's—”
He cut off when he heard something moving in the distance, and then felt it, through the ground shuddering beneath his feet and his angelic senses.
Dean's slitted eyes flicked toward the sound as he straightened.
They exchanged a look and then simultaneously crept in the direction opposite from where they'd last heard the noise. Castiel's blade appeared in his hand, and Dean pulled his stake up to the ready.
Without warning, something immense smashed into Dean. Castiel fell back from the force of it and crashed into the hard ground.
“Dean!” he shouted as his vision cleared. His head snapped in the direction he'd seen Dean fly, but all he saw was a long, sleek body covered in silver fur. Four massive paws dug into the dirt, and its tail shot out at a tense angle.
Castiel dragged himself to his feet and raced forward in search of Dean. As he got closer, he made out the profile of some sort of fox, with an elongated muzzle and—as had become predictable by this point—a mouth full of fangs.
Dean struggled beneath it, fighting for oxygen, most likely with a reopened wound. All that care they'd taken, out the window.
With blade drawn, Castiel raced toward the fox, aiming to jab the tip into its flank and scare it off. His ineptitude had already gotten Dean badly injured and infected with something that changed him by the minute. He wouldn't—couldn't—allow any more harm to come to him.
But before he reached the beast, Dean's voice stopped him.
“Cas! Wait.” Even through a face white from blood loss—even with those red eyes and pointed fangs—Castiel recognized Dean's stubborn spirit in his expression.
It caused Castiel to skid to a stop as his gaze darted from Dean to the monster.
Dean attempted to shift himself out from under the fox so that he could look it in the face. “... Amy?”
So you recognize me.
The words weren't actually spoken, but transmitted across a wavelength, similar in a way to how angels communicated when in true form. Not that Castiel wanted to relate this monster that had Dean at its mercy to angels, but he couldn't deny the familiarity that buzzed through his head even after the words had faded.
The voice, if it could be called that, registered as low, but also somehow female, and the way that it ran through his mind, almost if it was his own thought, made it impossible to ignore. Was this how Jimmy had felt, when he'd spoken to him?
Dean was definitely riveted—his attention had stayed fixed on the monster since he'd spoken that name.
If there had ever been an Amy in Dean's life, Castiel hadn't known of her. That wasn't surprising, as Dean had known many people, and not all of them had been worth mention. Most of the female names that had come up in relation to Dean belonged to women he'd been briefly intimate with and then moved on from without a care. That had been the case up until Lisa, at least, and Castiel had no idea who Dean might have met after that, seeing how he'd been too busy playing God and then suffering the consequences for that foolish decision.
But whoever this Amy was—an old flame, as the human saying went, or the victim of one of the Winchester's more recent hunts—it hardly mattered now. Castiel already knew the most important thing about her, which was that she planned to kill Dean. She—it—had to be stopped.
Is this what I deserved, Dean? The fox moved backward and circled around Dean's body, tossing its head as if gesturing to the forest around them. To end up in this place?
“Amy,” Dean breathed, his eyes darting side to side to follow the fox as it walked. “I didn't know—”
Castiel caught a flash of silver, and then the fox was on top of Dean again, its front paws crushing the ground on either side of his face as it forced its head down toward him. Don't! Don't act like you didn't know where I'd go!
Castiel jerked forward on instinct, but if Dean had stopped him before, it had to be for a reason, and he needed to honor that.
“Fuck, Amy!” Dean yelled, his voice breaking. “I didn't know what else to do!”
What happened to my son? Do you even know? The creature's fangs hovered dangerously close to Dean's head, but when Castiel tried to take a step forward, both of their heads whipped toward him. This was clearly a private issue, something Castiel had no knowledge of.
He tried not to let that bother him, but he had grown used to knowing all the details of Dean's life. Which angel wanted him dead, which demons he and Sam were currently hunting, even the state of his car. Not having the context when the stakes were clearly so high meant he had no idea how to respond, if he should throw caution to the wind and attack or wait to see what happened next.
Despite the fact that Castiel's instincts told him he should fling his blade right at the beast's neck and ends this now, something about the tightness in Dean's shoulders gave him pause.
Did you even tell Sam what you did? The fox dragged its paw through the dirt right next to Dean's shoulder, as if it could barely stop itself from mauling him with it.
Sam had something to do with this? Though almost as soon as Castiel asked himself that question, he felt foolish for it. Wasn't Sam always involved?
Dean shook in place and closed his eyes. “Listen, I had no—”
No. You can't hide from this, not here.
The fox pulled its paw up and let a single claw hover over one of Dean's infected eyes. You're just like us.
The fox shifted and flashed and then suddenly appeared a good ten feet away, half hidden behind a tree.
It stalked through the brush, but piercing cries from overhead made it halt. It glanced up, and when Castiel mirrored the movement, he spotted a flock of winged monsters high in the clouds.
The fox returned its attention to Dean. When I first got here, I was killed, over... and over. I didn't know what I was being punished for. All I was trying to do was save my son.
Dean pushed off the ground and forced himself to sit up despite the tattered bandages around his middle. Castiel wanted to run to him, but stopped himself.
“Listen.” Dean wheezed through the pain as he placed one hand to his heaving chest. “You killed people. If you were trying to save your son, you were doing a pretty piss poor job of it.”
Oh, yes, because you know all about saving people.
Dean's hand dropped from his chest. He looked from the fox to Castiel, but only held his gaze for a second before he broke it and bowed his head.
“No,” he said. “I don't.” He clenched his fist in front of him. “Why do you think I'm here?”
Castiel frowned and shook his head. He wished he could let Dean know in that moment how many people he'd saved with his actions. Families that would have been torn apart by a monster's influence continued to live happily because of Dean. Earth itself was still turning because he and Sam hadn't turned away from the threat of Lucifer himself. How could Dean blame himself for lives that had been lost when that number would have been so much higher if it weren't for him? Why could he never comprehend his own significance?
The fox huffed. You think that your own suffering will make up for what you put others through, but it doesn't work that way.
The monster's jaws snapped as it howled—a bloodthirsty sound that resonated through Castiel's mind like the echo of a gong—and wove through the trees on its way back to Dean.
That howl was the last straw. What if it had alerted other creatures in the area?
No, Castiel couldn't hold back any longer. He lunged toward Dean, but the moment he took a step the fox appeared in front of him, leering down with all of its bulk, jaws clenched in rage.
And you. I've heard of you. Dean's angel. I kill a few bad people and my son grows up an orphan, but you unleash leviathans on Earth and you're still best buddies?
Now that accusation rang true, unlike the claims this snarling beast had thrown in Dean's direction earlier. Castiel couldn't argue that he'd saved more people than he'd hurt. His own siblings had fallen to his blade, whereas Dean—no, Dean would have never harmed Sam, not in a million years. How could Dean be friends with someone who'd turned on his own family?
And when it came to family, it wasn't only the other angels. He'd been part of a new family—one that Dean, Sam, and Bobby had adopted him into—and he'd thrown that back in their faces, all for the “greater good.”
The fox's paw lifted up, impossibly fast, but Castiel jolted out of his thoughts at a dizzying speed. He sliced out with his sword and caught it between its claws. Sparks spat out as his blade clashed against them.
But it was too strong. The claws pushed past Castiel's defenses and struck him in the chest, which knocked him backward into a tree.
He slid to the ground, his chest exploding with pain. He sat there in a daze, vision black, until—
Castiel jumped to his feet in time to see the fox spin around and lift its claws to swipe at Dean. He envisioned it, how the thing would slice through Dean's neck, how his blood would gush out, how he'd lay there dead until he was reborn with red eyes, gnarled claws, mouth dripping with black spit.
Castiel forced himself up and flew forward.
He landed on the creature's back and stabbed his blade into its spinal cord, staining the translucent shine of its fur a dirty red. The fox howled and darted forward with dizzying speed. Castiel was thrown off; he hit the ground and rolled across it.
“Run!” he heard Dean call from nearby.
Castiel laid his palms flat against the ground and pushed his body upward as he searched desperately for Dean. “We can't run,” he panted. He grabbed for a nearby boulder to lean against as he tried to stand.
Dean ran over and seized Castiel by the arm to help him up. “Why the hell not?” he demanded.
The fox had to still be shaking off that stab wound, but it wouldn't be long before it recovered.
“You should know better than anyone,” Castiel gasped. “This one won't stop. If we run, it will chase us until it's killed us both.”
“She,” Dean insisted, his fanged mouth pulled down into a distressed line. “It's a she. Fuck, Cas, she was Sam's—”
Castiel caught the sound of heavy footfalls racing toward them. He pivoted and placed himself squarely in front of Dean, blade held out horizontally in front of him, as if it could be a shield rather than a sword.
“Don't, you idiot!” Dean hissed behind him.
Thus far, Castiel hadn't been able to kill anything in Purgatory, but he hadn't pushed himself to his limits. Everything here was already dead, but there were things worse than death.
Like being burned out of existence.
The fox galloped forward, still bleeding but moving quickly. Its large tongue hung between its fangs, a horrible fire in its eyes.
Castiel closed his eyes, tried to forget about the flesh he was inhabiting and pull from something much deeper. He only had scraps of power, but an angel's scraps were still not to be underestimated. He'd proved that many times before, though he'd been more whole, less damaged then. This was how he'd determine whether or not he was really, truly broken.
He pooled his power somewhere in his chest, breathing it in and holding it there. Time slowed; he felt the shudder of one of the beast's paws as it hit the earth, and then a few seconds later, another. He felt the tips of Dean's fingers touch his shoulder.
He opened his eyes, lifted his arm, and the light from his hand shined brighter than he'd expected. Brighter, and sharper.
“Shield your eyes!” he yelled.
And then Castiel forced all of that divine energy onto one specific point, the center of the creature's chest. He needed to make sure that this monster, this thing that would dare try to paint itself worthy of being Dean's killer, never bothered him again. Its silver fur and tight muscle dissipated quickly into the ether, and then its bones, until there was nothing left but dust.
His arm fell to his side. He watched the dust float to the ground. He heard the wind cutting through the bare tree branches overhead. Each second still felt more like a minute. Dean's hand finally gripped his shoulder, and that was when time righted itself.
“Holy shit,” Dean's voice came through to him. He used his grip to spin Castiel around until they were facing each other and then stared into his face. “Cas, are you okay?”
Dean, always worrying about others when he was the one in mortal danger..
In reality, Castiel did feel on the verge of collapse—his hands shook at his sides from the exertion and adrenaline, and his legs ached with the simple task of holding his weight—but they still weren't safe. He needed to fix Dean, and he needed to do it now. Castiel looped his hand around under Dean's arm to take hold of him. It was time to fly again.
When Castiel landed, he heard the sound of rushing water.
It came from a waterfall, with a bridge of rock leading to it. It would have been a welcome sight if not for the current circumstances.
Dean hunched at his side, still in Castiel's grip, but quickly wrested himself away and turned his back to him. Castiel let go, but moved up behind Dean as he doubled over. He could see the bones shifting in Dean's hand as his wrist jerked and his nails elongated into claws.
“Shit,” Dean snarled, breathing hard as fell to his knees. “Shit.”
“Dean!” Castiel grabbed the back of Dean's shirt collar and pulled him under an outcropping of rock. He pushed Dean to the ground and then knelt in front of him.
He couldn't stop himself from looking Dean over, starting with his face—unwashed hair, cheeks smudged with dirt, and punctuated by those preternatural eyes. Dean's torso heaved, exposing the infected gashes that ravaged his flesh with each breath.
Castiel could fix this, somehow. He'd taken Dean's soul, which had been tattered and twisted and tortured from thirty years of abuse, and he had made it anew. He had to be capable of doing it again.
“Just do it, Cas!” Dean shouted. He stared down at his hand, the skin split apart by the new-grown claws, fur spreading fast over the back of it.
Castiel fixed Dean with a steady stare. He needed to see Dean in those eyes, even if they were warped now. He needed to find acceptance there—he needed to know that he had permission to do something that might tear them both apart. But he couldn't find it. After he'd become so practiced at identifying every minute change in Dean's eyes, every indication of his mood through the way they flashed and moved, this was unbearable. He felt blinded.
“It's going to hurt,” he warned, even though he'd already made that clear. “Possibly more than anything else you've felt before.”
“You have awesome bedside manner, you know that?” Dean managed to get out before he grimaced in pain.
That didn't count as an agreement or even acknowledgment of his warning, but there was no more time. If he didn't act now, it might be too late. Castiel drew in a breath and then placed one hand on Dean's shoulder and the other against his torso, like before. Dean winced in response, but shook his head when Castiel peered into his face, brow creased.
Castiel sucked in a breath and then closed his eyes as he forced his hand through the flesh and made contact with Dean's soul once more. Screaming filtered through as Dean's ribcage rattled against his forearm, as Dean's skin flashed from the strain of something unnatural invading it, but Castiel couldn't stop. Now that he was this far, he had to do the job, cut out and burn away anything that wasn't part of Dean.
He found them quickly—those black splotches darkening up something that should only be bright. He had to remove them without excising any of Dean's true self, and the margin for error was so small that he hesitated. One wrong move and Dean would be crippled for life. Not physically, but down to his core. Simply put, he wouldn't be Dean anymore.
But if Castiel didn't do this, then the result would be the same, and so slowly, painstakingly, he burned the tainted parts that Purgatory had left on Dean's soul away.
As Castiel worked, the screaming only got louder. His chest tightened in response, in that way he'd learned to hate, but he continued to wipe away every blemish on Dean's soul until there was nothing left.
He remembered the state Dean's soul had been in when he'd rescued it from Hell. It'd been covered in that plague, that demonic taint, but it'd still been so hopelessly human. Castiel had felt so much as he'd repaired it, all of Dean's pain and guilt hitting him in one mighty blow. Back then, he hadn't completely understood it. He'd been nothing more than a grunt following orders; he'd had no conception of what that soul would do to him, of how it would change him.
Now, it was an honor to put it right again.
Though that only applied if he was successful. Before he retreated, Castiel did his best to repair Dean physically as well. Even if he reversed the turning process, it wouldn't mean a thing if Dean died by other means. Castiel worked to knit up the disaster that had been rendered on his abdomen. When it was done by means of Dean's soul, rather than outwardly, it seemed to work better. At least, that's what he hoped.
Once Castiel had done as much as he could, and once the strain of a task that required so much power became too much, he pulled away. The swampy area around him came back into focus, along with the pounding noise of the waterfall. But none of that mattered. Castiel stared at Dean, and saw his blunt teeth and nails, his human eyes, his patched up torso, and the relief crashed on him like a great wave.
He set a hand on Dean's chest, to make sure his heart was still beating, and then—
Then, his body tilted backward, he hit the ground, and everything went black.
[ masterpost ]